Birth Pains of a Nation: South Sudan’s Problematic Boom

Fellows Spring 2011

By Krista Mahr

November 08, 2011

Also published in TIME

A group celebrates South Sudan's independence in the capital, Juba, on July 8, 2011Giorgos Moutafis / EPA

When the first limousine in South Sudan arrived earlier this year, it was loaded onto a truck and covered in a giant tarp. "I didn't want to cause any accidents," says Latjor James Mayul, the Juba businessman who ordered the 2003 Lincoln Navigator online from a dealership in the Netherlands. Mayul understood the raw power of luxury in a nation picking itself up from decades of isolation and war. Even today "” months after his rental limo has become a fixture at the weddings of the city's highflyers "” the opulence of its white leather seats and LED disco lighting is hard to resist, even for Mayul. "See the lights?" he asks. "They're so amazing!"

Three months into South Sudan's nationhood, the new capital of Juba is still in the grip of postindependence euphoria. Happy citizens in roadside beer advertisements toast each other on the nation's "Fine Achievement." Yellow Humvees and black Range Rovers jockey for space on the pockmarked arteries where white aid vehicles used to reign supreme and skeletons of soon-to-be hotels and high-end apartment complexes sprout between corrugated iron shanties and makeshift tea stands. Even the egalitarian matatu "” the inexpensive minibuses that ferry passengers around many African cities "” has embraced the aspirational zeal, with slogans like "Time Is Money" emblazoned in stickers across their windshields.

It's a kind of material optimism that "” for those who have access to it "” has taken on an almost patriotic hue after years of collective sacrifice. "Our parents went through the hardship of getting us to this point," says Aisha Jore Ali, who recently started the first South Sudanese event- and wedding-management company after she noticed that more couples were getting married in the months leading up to and after independence. "Any occasion that brings happiness is a big deal." Mayul, who says he paid about $90,000 for the used limo through his coterie of other small-business ventures, isn't sure when "” or if "” he'll make any money on this particular whim. "I don't know how long it will take to get the money back," he admits. "But if people are happy, I feel like I'm doing a good job."

Juba's golden aura of opportunity has many knocking on its door. On a side street in an NGO-infused neighborhood, Filmon Tsegoy stands in the middle of what he says will soon be the classiest hotel in town. At 24, the Eritrean is in contention to be the youngest hotelier in the city, and he is in good company. "There are Ugandans, Kenyans, Lebanese ... they're from everywhere," says Tsegoy. Indeed, since Khartoum and Juba signed a peace agreement in 2005 ending their vicious war, entrepreneurs and skilled and manual laborers from throughout the region have been helping build a shattered Juba from the ground up. The government has mostly welcomed the foreigners "” particularly those like Tsegoy who bring capital with them "” to help ease the investment and labor shortage in a country where most people have been too busy avoiding AK-47s to learn skills needed to build up the economy. "I didn't want to live here," Tsegoy says. "But now I like it."

Not all newcomers give the world's newest nation such rave reviews. On a Saturday morning, a thin crowd of men and a few families mill around the dusty grounds of Juba's Episcopal Church, where the U.N. has set up a few plastic tables to register refugees. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who have returned home since the end of the war in 2005, people from the northern Sudanese states of Darfur, Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile have been heading to Juba in recent months, fleeing fighting in their hometowns or seeking a better life under a government they feel is, by definition, sympathetic to their grievances with Khartoum. "People chose South Sudan because we have the same land, the same enemies, the same color, the same culture," says Idiris Adam Abraham, who fled Darfur 10 years ago and moved to Egypt. After the South became independent in July, Abraham took his young wife and 5-year-old son to Juba, hoping the family could settle down. "Sometimes [the South Sudanese] are welcoming. Many are understanding," Abraham says. "But they are affected by the war. They've had many bad experiences ... it's like they are paying it back."

Indeed, for all of Juba's optimism, many worry whether the overloaded government has the ability to look after its own citizens, let alone an influx of refugees and foreign workers. Despite some $10 billion the South has received in oil revenues since the 2005 peace deal, basic services around the country remain scarce. Even in the capital, where poverty rates are less than half that of rural areas, people are slipping through the cracks as officials become increasingly preoccupied with the complications of urbanization. "There are so many threats "” money laundering, counterfeiting, drugs. These are new to us," says Lieut. General Salva Mathok Gengdit, the Deputy Interior Minister. The police, many of whom are former soldiers without any formal police training, are ill equipped to contain a growing crime rate spurred on by Juba's rising cost of living and lack of opportunity after decades of war. At a military hospital in town, several soldiers a week are admitted after attempting suicide. "People are under pressure to support their families," says Akim Nyuon Yach, who has to perform dental work on many of the would-be suicide patients after they have tried to shoot themselves under the jaw. "They can't envision their future. Now that war is over, they don't see the purpose of their lives."

Indeed, a creeping sense that peace is not all that it was cracked up to be is beginning to settle into Juba's backstreets, into the dusty corners beyond the reach of the oil money, the building contracts and the international donors. In Jebel Market, a dusty, sprawling bazaar on the outside of town, a warren of beauty salons and tchotchke shops gives way to a quiet row of corrugated-tin buildings with closed doors. The women and girls who work in the market's brothel have arrived from all over the country and region, escaping abusive parents and broken families to try to find a new start in the capital. "When I left home, I was being beaten," says Susan Deng (not her real name), a 12-year-old sex worker, as she puts a T-shirt on a stuffed animal on a narrow bed in a stuffy closet-size room. "My friend and I packed up our things and moved here."

The fast-growing gap between Juba's haves and have-nots does not bode well for a nation founded on righting the inequities it experienced under Khartoum's rule. Outside of the oil industry, which accounts for 98% of the nation's revenue, the construction industry in Juba is one of the only growing sectors. Outside the capital's frenetic streets, any sense of upward mobility drops off a steep cliff. In rural South Sudan, where 85% of the population lives, schools are few, health care is minimal and long-simmering intertribal conflicts draw generation after generation of young men into violence. "What's at risk is the development of two South Sudans "” a South Sudan for the rich and a South Sudan for the poor," says Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan. She says the government needs to ensure its oil revenue starts to spread out to more than an elite few, through measures like cash-transfer programs that provide regular payments from public coffers to households in need. "It would demonstrate to the people that their government cares for them. Right now if you're South Sudanese, you're seeing a lot of people getting rich and most people not getting anything."

As Juba continues to grow taller, wider and richer, it will continue to draw more South Sudanese like Deng, whose short life is already defined by a war that ended when she was 6 years old. She says she'd like to get out of the market, but she says, "I don't have anywhere to go." Until then, rooms like this one will be home, draped in flowered sheets and lit with a dim bulb, smelling vaguely of urine and sweat. Emmanuelle Bol (not her real name), a government social worker, says there are many more kids like Deng in danger in Juba today than during the war, as people flood into the capital from former conflict zones and neighboring countries and find no good choices waiting for them. "People are living in the street, and nobody is helping them. Children are living in the street, and nobody is helping them," says Bol. When she sees girls like Deng, Bol says she worries about where the country is headed. "She could get HIV. She could get drugged, or even killed ... Who is going to look after this country?"

Krista Mahr reported from South Sudan on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).